The past few days were quite busy – and historic. Osama Bin Laden was finally killed, Canada finally elected a majority government and the Ultimate Fighting Championship finally made its debut here in Toronto over the weekend in front of 55,000 fans at the sold-out Rogers Centre. Whether you’re a fan of mixed martial arts or not, it was a memorable and historic event – it was the first time UFC was allowed into Ontario after years of political opposition and it was the biggest crowd the sport has ever drawn in North America.
I had a chance to chat with Simon Assaad, the chief executive of Heavy.com, at the event about some technology-focused topics that are likely of interest even to non-UFC fans. Heavy.com recently began producing and airing Fight Day, an online-only pre-game show that serves as a lead-in to UFC pay-per-view events. He had some interesting thoughts on trends such as people cutting their cable subscriptions and getting their video online, which you can read below.
Given that Heavy depends on online video quality to air Fight Day, I also asked Assaad for his thoughts on the current controversy regarding usage-based internet billing in Canada. Not surprisingly, he’s not a fan of what big internet providers are doing and hopes they mend their ways. Check out the short clip below or click here if you can’t see it:
Here’s the rest of the interview:
You say that online is the tip of the spear as far as UFC is concerned. Can you explain what you mean by that?
The distribution for their programming is primarily broadcast right now. Pay per view is through cable, The Ultimate Fighter and preliminary shows themselves are generally through TV. But recently there’s been a fairly significant amount of experimentation online. The first five [matches] are actually run on Facebook as free fights before it goes to Spike TV. In addition, the UFC has recently set up their on-demand pay-per-view, which can be watched through the web as well. So if you think about some of the developments that are going on with, for example Warner Bros. and Netflix and places like Facebook, where they’re using that as a distribution platform for pay per view, if you’re someone like UFC and you can get significant distribution through a social media strategy you can then drive that to pay-per-view. In addition, you have a relationship with the customer. It’s years away from where it becomes any kind of significant adjustment between what they make out of cable versus what they make online but we like to think of ourselves as part of the innovation. Our process is building the show online first and then taking it to television.
How important is traditional television to UFC?
It’s still incredibly important, there’s just no way that without traditional television a sport like the UFC exists at the same level that it is today. TV is still a key driver but we think that over the next five or 10 years online becomes an additional participant.
There’s a lot of talk about cord-cutting and people getting rid of their cable subscriptions in favour of getting content online. It seems like with UFC, you can do that.
Absolutely. If you don’t want to watch it on television, you absolutely don’t have to. The problem is for most people right now, that’s their buying style. The process of changing is a generational thing.
But the fan base of UFC generally skews younger, right?
It is, and that’s why I think UFC is at the tip of the spear, if you will, in terms of not changing but adding online pay-per-view as an additional revenue stream. There are many, many years where the traditional cable and broadcast platforms provide significant revenue streams but the online stream will grow as the generations change.
So what was the idea behind Fight Day?
This was our fourth show, it’s something we started developing in October after a long conversation with our partners at the UFC. We wanted to develop a show and they recommended a pre-show. In fact, there wasn’t anything in that space, so we were looking at building Fight Day as a kind of College GameDay (ESPN show) for UFC pay-per-view fights. It’s available on Yahoo Sports, Fox Sports, Bleacher Report, Heavy, Ustream, it’s got a pretty significant audience and we’re pretty excited about the development so far.
Why did Heavy decide to get into UFC?
As a men’s lifestyle brand, sports is such a significant part of any young man’s lifestyle, but the process of getting into the so-called stick-and-ball sports in the U.S. is incredibly expensive or you’re really irrelevant. Either you’re spending millions of dollars on rights fees or you’re one of a hundred or a thousand sites that are reviewing games, matches, athletes but you just don’t have the access that traditional media do. For us, UFC and MMA was a place that was new enough but more importantly it really fit with Heavy as a brand. So it was two things: it was great for the brand and it enabled us to be unique and different and provide our guys with something they may not otherwise get on another men’s lifestyle site.